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‍Language Families - The branches that beckon us to closer connections

‍In the ecosystem of linguists and people who deal with foreign languages, we are familiar with the beautiful depiction of the language tree. 

 

Minna Sundberg has done a great job at visualising the connections between languages and language families (see her creation above), and, as a consequence has made it more accessible for any human being to develop an understanding of how and why languages are so intertwined.

 

According to languages gulper there are approximately 21 language families in total, which have not been all represented in the language tree, however we have to remember that this was not Sundberg’s intention when developing this graphical form. Language families include those most familiar languages, such as English, Arabic or Chinese, but also those which operate regionally, for example Yoruba (Africa) or Guarani (South America). We also have some which are considered extinct, such as Sanskrit (Indo-European). These languages, of course, belong to families which encompass certain areas, however, families in themselves do not necessarily respect physical borders and in that context we have an Indo-European family, which is the largest and most diverse.

 

If we follow Sundberg’s tree, we find that, for example, Persian is related to Hindi and Nepali. Even though the tree itself may not be 100% scientifically correct and in practice the speakers may not be able to converse, these languages belong to the same Indo-Iranian branch, belonging to the Indo-European family. Furthermore, Hindi and Nepali are very closely related through the Indo-Aryan branch as they both follow the Devanagari script.

 

 

Although there are phonetic and grammatical differences which mean that the languages are not mutually intelligible, knowing one can certainly improve the chance of accelerated learning of the other. But then, what is the logic of the Indo-European family in all this? The complexity lays in the relationship of Hindi, Nepali and Persian to Sanskrit, with which they share some characteristics. It has been discovered that Sanskrit relates to Greek and Latin, hence what seems distant, in reality has the same roots (Dorren, 2018:56).

 

Speaking from experience, as a native Polish speaker, I find that the Slavic family of languages is very closely related, with similarities between Czech, Slovak, Russian and Croatian, and many words and grammatical rules are shared within this group. Although they are not mutually intelligible, they are certainly closer to each other than to Swedish, English or Spanish (Germanic and Romance languages). Even so, there are still loan words that are shared across these languages, which make it into the official dictionaries. In some cases, it’s because of the Latin roots, for example, justice - iusticia, father – pater, or three - tres (Cogitatorium, 2020). In others, the sharing becomes quite free:

 

storm (EN) - sturm (GER) - sztorm (PL)

tempestas (LAT) - tempête (FRE) - tempesta (ITA) - tormenta (SPA)

 

Cognates such as these, make it easier for English native speakers to order bier at the Octoberfest or the French to sip café at Piazza Venezia. It also makes learning these languages easier, thanks to so many similarities which can certainly prove to be a linguistic bargain! Although they won’t necessarily help us learning Hindi and Persian, they certainly won’t exclude us from it either. In theory, the dimmed relation may mean we find certain languages of the same family easier and that may give an advantage in the quest to become multilingual. Developing students’ awareness of language families is thus an important aspect of the learning process, especially for those who have already learned foreign languages. Such awareness will make it easier for students to look for and understand patterns that connect languages - making the process a lot more engaging and efficient.

 

PLS can assist you with any language learning goal. We teach all world languages and have an army of over 500 qualified and experienced teachers. Get in touch today to see how we can help you learn a language!

 

References:

Britannica.com, Indo-European Languages, https://www.britannica.com/place/India/Indo-European-languages

Cogitatorium, (2020), Latin and English, URL: http://rharriso.sites.truman.edu/latin-language/latin-and-english/

Dorren, G., (2018), Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, Profile Books, pp.50-58

Image extracted from: https://www.britannica.com/place/India/Indo-European-languages

Image extracted from: https://log.expatgoneforeign.com/2017/12/03/the-magic-of-cognates/

Image extracted from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/gallery/2015/jan/23/a-language-family-tree-in-pictures#img-1

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